Saturday, November 28, 2009

Red Roses for the Soldier and the Angel

Image from Vancouver Archives

In front of Waterfront Station stands a large bronze statue of a soldier being carried heavenward. Seen in light and shadow, sunshine and rain, this monument of the early twentieth century never looks the same twice. No matter from what angle I look at it, I never feel as if I have found the definitive view.

Tonight as I hurried past, a glimpse of red caught my eye, and I gazed up at the angel's bronze feathered wing, the uniformed soldier's limp form, his unraveling puttees, all gleaming with rain. Three red roses, still fresh, had been placed in the crook of his arm. It must have been done a few hours ago at most: the leaves were just beginning to wilt.

The statue used to seem remote and anachronistic. The fresh red roses gave it a chilling new dimension. Who put them there? What bereaved soul turned for consolation to this outdated image of comfort, sought out this old monument in a new ritual of remembrance?

I thought about Don, the artist who used to sketch the statue a few summers ago. I stopped one day to admire his work, and we started talking.

"This statue is fascinating," I said.

"The funny thing is," he said, "most people don't even see it."

My answer was mildly disbelieving.

"No," he said. "They really don't notice it. They ask me what I'm sketching, and when I tell them, 'The statue,' they say, 'What statue?'"

"What are you going to do with the sketch?" I asked finally.

He raised his eyes from his work to look at me frankly. "Maybe sell it to you for the price of a good meal?"

I gave him what money I had in my wallet, holding back only enough for a coffee. It would buy him at least a couple of meals, but still, it was little enough. Then while Don put the finishing touches on the drawing, I waited in a nearby coffee shop.

As he wrapped the drawing carefully in newspaper for me, he told me about the monument. "There are two others," he said, "one in Winnipeg and one in Montreal. They were commissioned to commemorate the men of the CPR who died in World War I and then updated after World War II to include the men who died in that war. I do another view," he added. "A close-up. You might like that one too. I'm here most days."

I came by a few days later, and finding him doing the other style of sketch, I bought that one too. The close-up view showed no background. The figures seemed to fly up into empty air. I don't know what became of Don afterwards. I haven't seen him sketching since.

Now the roses have updated the old statue once more. Someone who loved and lost a soldier still hopes he will be carried to heaven by his own personal angel.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Riding the Magic Stairs to 1967

It is said that every seven years our cells are completely replaced. If this is so, my memory cells have passed on the smell of these rubber stair treads to five new generations.

Whoosh -- Totem Park Cafeteria, 1967. Having scarfed down a Salisbury steak with two veg while my roommate ostentatiously gnawed on “rubber cheese,” the only vegetarian option, I am heading upstairs to my room.

Later, walking to the library where I will shelve books, I pass the recently constructed bell tower, which the boys call “Ladner’s last erection,” daring us to be shocked. I climb the granite steps and enter through the ornate main doors. How wonderful to be seventeen and have my whole life before me, as my mother never tires of saying. The fragrance of wooden card catalogue drawers, slightly sour, and the dusty papery smells of the stacks are still exotic, new.

Sorting cutlery in the residence kitchen, I wear my sweatshirt with Amor vincit omnia, love conquers all, embroidered on it crookedly in red wool. A middle-aged kitchen worker who can speak little English can apparently read this bad Latin. He chases me round the lounge, and I beat a rapid retreat down over the rubber-topped stairs.

Visiting friends on other floors, we aspiring hippies negotiate these stairs many times a day, and the new rubber treads sting our bare feet. After somber conversations about the existential alienation of Camus or Sartre, and commiseration over looming essay deadlines, our soles are also in pain.

Down over those same stairs I run out at dusk with my new friend to see the daffodils in Marine Foreshore Park. Finding the grass freshly mown, we lie down and roll in it, then, bubbling over with laughter. Then we race back up to our rooms, dripping grass clippings in the stairwell.

Now, forty years later, climbing the polished granite stairs of the Bennett Library, I catch a whiff of the same rubbery smell in the stairwell. No doubt these identical treads were installed during the same era. As I arrive at my floor and open the glass door, the rows of dusty stacks assail me with memory. This is not just a library. It is a time machine.

A Sign of Consumer Sanity?

When false advertising was illegal, companies could be held accountable in court for outright lies. Deceiving potential buyers to manipulate them into making a purchase was considered wrong, and society was willing to censure the perpetrators.

Now individual consumers are no longer the ones who matter. On Madison Avenue, two advertising firms are fighting each other over their perceived rights to market share.

Last week, the New York Times published an article describing the latest suing wars as firms take one another to court over rival advertising that takes away "their" customers.

"Prove it," they say of one another's claims. Come again? Advertisers asking one another to be truthful?

So they put on their armour and joust away in court, bringing expert witnesses to prove that experiments were done, and a certain shampoo really does repair hair better than its rival.

Sometimes they settle out of court, paying one another large sums of money. For what? I ask myself. To cover their lies, or apologize?

I must confess to a certain satisfaction about the aftermath of these donnybrooks. After two canned soup producers finished attacking each other court, reports the Times, both lost market share. Not just in the short term -- sales have continued to fall.

Is this a glimmering of sanity? Are consumers finally getting tired of the outrageous claims of advertisers? I sincerely hope so.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Spirit is Willing but the Corpus Callosum is Weak

Image from learnoutloud

After the Women’s Liberation movement, we tried to deny that men and women were different. That didn’t work. Take a simple thing like clothes. Men look and feel good in jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, jackets, ties and brogues; women look great in dresses, skirts, pants, suits, jewellery and heels. Sorry, Annie Hall, but you looked just plain silly in that necktie and fedora. I’m ducking now, in case people start throwing things.

Now that my head's down, I'll admit I think men look silly when they wear earrings and highlight their hair. Yes, including David Beckham. Now I really have to duck.

No, the sexes are not the same. Thirty years of attempts to deny the obvious biological differences, and what have we really achieved? Men: hands up if you’d trust your wife to deal with a leaking pipe. What would you do if the driver’s side windshield wiper fell off the car? Call your wife to help? Nope, she can’t fix it. Doesn’t want to. It takes a man’s single-minded focus to analyze this kind of problem and then take decisive action.

But admit it guys, we girls are the ones who keep the cupboards stocked. We also excel at making a quick meal out of whatever is in the fridge, providing friendly reminders of the family’s appointments and finding other people’s mislaid belongings. And while we’re doing that, we can also talk on the phone and keep an eye on the kids. Women: hands up if your man can do laundry and watch TV at the same time. See what I mean?

But then, who would want to have a partner with exactly the same skills, attitudes, and thought patterns? Nothing to learn, no opportunity to grow. The fact is, most men are single-minded focused fixers, while women are usually multi-taskers who carry with them a diffuse fog of attention that can absorb information from several directions at once.

Scientists have finally discovered the reason. It arises from the basic structure of our brains. The two hemispheres are connected by a small bridge called the corpus callosum. Research has shown that in women, that bridge is wider and thicker.

So believe him when he tells you he can’t see the loaf of rye bread you just this minute put in the freezer, or is unable to find his own tie in the closet. Understand that he can’t answer a question, no matter how easy, when he is watching a basketball game.

The good news is that he's willing to do things for you. He just has to focus on them one at a time, so cut him some slack. The spirit really is willing; it’s just the corpus callosum that’s weak. He was born male. So, ladies, instead of showing off your brilliant multi-tasking abilities to your partner, just ask him nicely to do what you want done and can't do yourself. Then remember to thank him afterwards.

Because it's official. Science has now demonstrated what fear of sexism has tried so hard to play down. Men and women are biologically different. But that’s okay. Therein lies the potential for working together to get all the necessary tasks done. And of course, therein lies the electric charge between the sexes. The French have known the joy of surprise and contrast all along. Vive le difference!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not the Naughties

It’s been brilliant, it’s nearly over and we still haven’t named it. We’re going to have to refer back to this small era very soon. What can we call it? The name should be fitting – a word that acknowledges the great strides of progress we’ve made in this first decade of the new millennium.

Numerical names like the sixties and the nineties have been customary, but for this decade they won’t work. They don’t roll trippingly off the tongue, and they have bad connotations to boot. The oughties, for instance, sounds way too bossy.

The naughties? Too old-fashioned, and too close to the adjective naughty. It’s true that in the last century the twenties roared, and the thirties were dirty. But do we really want future generations to think the whole first decade of the new millennium was naughty?

Besides, there are still an aging few who recall that ought and naught used to be synonyms for nothing. But it’s doubtful whether anyone under seventy remembers that the game of xes and ohs was once called naughts and crosses. Clearly, if we use ought or naught, the original meaning will quickly become obscure, leaving posterity scratching its collective head. Who even plays xes and ohs anymore anyway? It requires those primitive implements, pencil and paper. We’ve gone way beyond those simple tools. Even the smallest child communicates strictly by computer and iphone.

Certainly we cannot dub the decade the zeroes or the zips. Using either of these names would be both misleading and unfair. And without doubt, young people growing up during these years would resent the decade of their coming of age being labeled as a nothing time.

Au contraire.
They will naturally want their coming of age decade to be remembered as the time of great technical and social achievement that it was. And there is much to be proud of. This has been the era when the home telephone, demoted to its reduced title and status as a landline, became so nearly obsolete. The time when it became impossible to talk to a human voice by calling a business number, due to the progressive move to the infinitely superior answering messages, each with its own dizzying range of options. The time when people began to ignore the ringing phone, in a vain attempt to screen out the computer voices that called them at dinner time and tried to sell them everything from carpet cleaning to firemen’s pinup calendars. Wait! Firemen’s pinup calendars? Count me in!

This has been the age, too, of the widespread adoption of the cell phone, a wonderful innovation that made it possible to speak to a live person again, always providing you had the cell number.

Even when cell phones were still so primitive they could not offer text messaging or video games, these new devices made their mark. First they instantly doubled everyone’s phone bill and made it impossible to screen out calls. And they certainly made commuting more exciting. On the train, people no longer suffered the boredom of poring silently over their own books or their own thoughts. The air around them was soon rife with one-sided private conversations to listen in on.

This decade of progress will also be remembered as the time when cell phones morphed into cameras. This was very significant: it meant that we could now take photos so miniscule that nobody could see our wrinkles or gray hairs, if indeed they could see our faces at all.

Of course, it was a revolutionary time for students too. Habituated to the vastly superior computer screen, they soon began to forget the printed page. Indeed, there was now hardly any demand for something so out of date as a printed book. At home, there was the 19” LCD monitor, and nobody went out without a blackberry. (I confess that I used to think blackberries were the wild fruit growing along the edges of the Serpentine Dike. Now I know better.)

Going to class became so much more exciting when students brought their cell phones, loaded with amusing ring tones. Now they could play computer games or send text messages to keep themselves amused while the boring teacher droned on and on.

It’s true there were a few minor inconveniences. For instance, old fashioned people with paper address books had to make room for email addresses. And luddites with no computers, slow computers or no RealPlayer Plus could no longer open their Christmas cards when the primitive paper Christmas cards that used to go through the renamed “snail mail” were practically forgotten.

When a personal computer became indispensable, parental rules were vanquished, once and for all. The same intrepid moms and dads who had had dared to put bedtime above the early years of CSI , Frasier, and even Survivor could no longer keep the TV out of the bedroom. To deny children access to their own computers would mean compromising their education and their future. As the downloading began, older kids rationalized, “But Mom, Dad, by downloading I can watch the whole season of The Office without commercials!”

It was around this time that live conversations became obsolete. In the bank, customers began to answer their cellphones right under the teller’s nose. Shoppers started using their cell phones instead of shopping lists.

“I’m at IGA. Do we need anything?”

“What? Sorry, Gotta go. Canadian Idol is coming on. Call you back.”

The old-fashioned tradition of eating family eating meals together passed into history, as individuals were now free to eat in front of user-friendly machines which never told them to chew their food or eat their vegetables.

Anyway, in just over a month, this brilliant decade will be over. When our new millennium enters its teens, we’ll have to refer back to this decade as something. The Sell Phones decade maybe?